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Arjun Appadurai, Thomas Blom Hansen and others debate legacy of European imperialism

Start of two-year European cultural policy series of the Hertie School and German Foreign Office.

Experts discussed the legacies of race, empire and the European ‘republic of letters’ at the Hertie School on 27 May. The event inaugurated a two-year series on ‘The contested idea of Europe: Global perspectives and possibilities for European cultural policy’, co-sponsored by the Hertie School and the Federal Foreign Office.

Hertie School President Henrik Enderlein gave words of welcome to the event, which was initiated by Arjun Appadurai, who recently joined the Hertie School as Professor of Anthropology and Globalisation. Andreas Görgen, Head of the Cultural and Communications Department of the Federal Foreign Office also greeted the guests.

Participants discussed the remarkable flourishing of new ideas, philosophy and debate on human freedom and creativity in Europe’s ‘republic of letters’, a period from the 17th to 19th century, which followed many years of religious and political strife. They explored how this burst of creativity also coincided with some of the darkest chapters in Europe’s history: the enslavement, subjection and exploitation of vast populations across the globe as Europe’s imperial domination expanded and deepened.

Thomas Blom Hansen, Reliance-Dhirubhai Ambani Professor in South Asian Studies and Professor in Anthropology at Stanford University was the keynote speaker. Regina Römhild, Professor of European Ethnology at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin delivered a response, followed by a question and answer session with Arjun Appadurai, chaired by Mark Hallerberg, Dean of Research and Faculty and Professor of Public Management and Political Economy at the Hertie School.

Blom Hansen’s lecture outlined the most consequential ideas emerging from the period: human freedom and autonomy, popular self-determination, property rights, civility and liberal toleration, which, he asserted, arose as direct answers to the new epistemic, moral and political challenges of empire. It was the global encounter with Europe’s others, not as equals, but as subject populations that forced European thinkers to ponder the human condition in a new conceptual language of universalism, Blom Hansen argued. Empire afforded this intellectual legacy, along with all of its liberal and illiberal potential, and a global standing and authority that are still unfolding today, he said.

A podcast of the event is forthcoming. 

More about Arjun Appadurai

  • Prof. Arjun Appadurai, PhD, Professor of Anthropology and Globalisation